Making these habits part of your a.m. routine packs a double punch: They can ward off cognitive decline while boosting clarity and concentration.
Here, five things to do in the morning to give your brain a boost:
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1. Log 30 Minutes of Cardio
Aerobic activity is a boon for your noggin. In fact, an April 2022 review in AIMS Neuroscience found that increased cardio led to both short-term and long-term cognitive improvements. We're talking better executive function, attention span, information processing, learning and memory formation.
Sweating it out can also ward off cognitive decline as you get older: "Many age-related changes in the brain occur as a result of damage to the blood vessels in the brain," says Reid Kehoe, PsyD, neuropsychologist at Northwestern Medicine. "Cardiovascular exercise increases blood flow to the brain, which helps prevent and perhaps repair that damage."
Here's your goal: Get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity weekly, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prenvetion (CDC) — for example, a half-hour of brisk walking or biking five days a week. Alternately, you can opt for 75 minutes of vigorous exercise such as running or swimming laps. (Be sure to check with your doctor before you start a new exercise routine, especially if you have limited mobility or any medical issues.)
Just remember that in order to reap the brain benefits, you have to elevate your heart rate beyond normal. Use the "talk test" to make sure you're on target. Per the CDC, during moderate-intensity exercise you should be able to talk but not sing. For a strenuous workout, you won't be able to say more than a few words without being out of breath.
2. Pour a Cup (or Two) of Java
Wake up and smell the coffee!
It may come as no surprise if you're a coffee-drinker, but a May 2021 review in Cureus found that caffeine can enhance the brain's processing speed and improve memory. And a December 2016 review in Practical Neurology suggests a moderate amount of coffee (two-and-a-half cups in one sitting, or five cups over the course of the day) can also boost alertness, wellbeing, concentration and mood.
Filling your mug can benefit the aging brain, too: "Coffee is believed to reduce the risk of dementia," Kehoe says.
The Practical Neurology review notes that it may also help protect you from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.
The best time to drink coffee for better focus is mid-morning, about an hour after you wake up.
3. MIND Your Meals
MIND is a blend of the Mediterranean diet and DASH diet that emphasizes plant-based foods while limiting red meat, saturated fat and sugar. "It keeps the blood vessels in your brain healthy," Kehoe says.
The study found that people who ate in line with MIND slowed their cognitive decline by as much as 7.5 years. According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, people who closely followed the diet also had a 53 percent lower rate of Alzheimer's.
MIND-friendly breakfast ideas include green smoothies, oatmeal with nuts and berries, whole-grain waffles and breakfast veggie burgers. Steer clear of sweet pastries and processed meats like bacon.
4. Challenge Yourself
Sit down to the crossword, Sudoku or Wordle during breakfast. A 2017 report from the Global Council on Brain Health notes that mental challenges, mind teasers, puzzles and games can help maintain or improve cognition.
"Hobbies that keep your mind active strengthen your neural pathways and connections, ensuring they will be more robust in the face of age-related brain changes," Kehoe says.
According to the report, this leads to better memory, attention, thinking, language and reasoning skills.
For best results, the report suggests choosing mentally stimulating pursuits that are new to you, that you truly enjoy and that give you a challenge (think: learning to play an instrument or speak a new language). It also helps to switch things up (say, do Spelling Bee one day; a language-learning app like Babbel the next).
5. Buddy Up
Kick off the day with your squad. "Research shows that social isolation is a risk factor for cognitive decline later in life," Kehoe says. "In addition, strong social connections can also keep depression at bay to a degree."
According to Harvard Health Publishing, hanging with your crew increases attention and memory, while strengthening neural networks. So grab a morning workout buddy, meet a friend for coffee before work or call a loved one during your commute.
- AIMS Neuroscience : "Can exercise shape your brain? A review of aerobic exercise effects on cognitive function and neuro-physiological underpinning mechanisms"
- CDC: "How much physical activity do adults need?"
- Cureus: "The Neurophysiology of Caffeine as a Central Nervous System Stimulant and the Resultant Effects on Cognitive Function"
- Practical Neurology: "Effects of coffee/caffeine on brain health and disease: What should I tell my patients?"
- Alzheimer’s & Dementia: "MIND diet slows cognitive decline with aging"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Diet Review: MIND Diet"
- Global Council on Brain Health: "Engage Your Brain: GCBH Recommendations on Cognitively Stimulating Activities"
- Current Behavioral Neuroscience Reports: "A Narrative Review of Loneliness and Brain Health in Older Adults: Implications of COVID-19"
- Harvard Health: "3 ways to build brain-boosting social connections"
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